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L.A. Philharmonic lands premiere of a long-lost Shostakovich opera

A year from now, the city will hear the first performance of a prologue to an abandoned 1932 opera, 'Orango.' The Phil was vying alongside other interested groups.

November 18, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Twenty-three years after his death, musicologists still debate Dmitri Shostakovich's politics and his loyalties.
Twenty-three years after his death, musicologists still debate Dmitri… (Shostakovich Family Archives )

The surviving prologue of an unfinished, long-lost opera by Dmitri Shostakovich will have its world premiere in December 2011 in a semi-staged production at Walt Disney Concert Hall, capping a multi-year process of musical sleuthing and improbable discoveries that's nearly as eye-opening as the work's bizarre subject matter.

Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in three performances of the reconstructed prologue to the opera, "Orango," a blisteringly satirical 1932 work about the wayward doings of a grotesque half-man, half-ape creature that the Russian composer wrote in collaboration with librettists Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov.

Peter Sellars will direct the Phil's production of the 40-minute work, which has been orchestrated from the surviving piano sketches by British composer Gerard McBurney, artistic programming advisor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at the request of Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, the composer's third wife and widow.

"It's an amazing story. And to me, it's a minor miracle that we're going to be able to do this," said Deborah Borda, the Phil's president.

The libretto and music for the prologue apparently are all that remain of the planned four-act opera, which was commissioned by Moscow's Bolshoi Theater to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution. Scholars believe that the "Orango" project was abandoned before completion largely because Shostakovich and his colleagues were unable to meet their deadline. But Soviet officials' concerns about the planned work's outlandish story line — and uncertainty over whether the young Soviet state was among its intended comic targets — also may have led to its being scrapped.

"He probably would've been sent to a gulag if he'd ever completed it," Borda said of the composer, who died in 1975.

The prologue arrived in the hands of the Phil through a circuitous route that began with the dogged detective work of a Russian musicologist, Olga Digonskaya, who was working for Irina Shostakovich in 2004 when she unearthed the manuscript for "Orango" from the composer's archives at the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow.

Before Digonskaya's discovery, scholars had assumed that no "Orango" manuscript existed.

"All this stuff was sort of lying there because nobody had the time or the energy or the money to do anything about it," McBurney said. "It took her [Digonskaya] a long while to work out what the hell it was."

An outline of the complete work, part of the Glinka trove, reveals its authors' full intentions. The baritone protagonist, Orango, a.k.a. "Jean Or," is the hybrid offspring of a female ape impregnated with human sperm by a French scientist. Resurfacing as an adult after World War I, he becomes a successful and increasingly sleazy journalist, power broker and virulent anti-communist — the epitome of a corrupt bourgeois.

As he degenerates, morally and otherwise, Orango reverts to his crude simian nature. Eventually he is sold to the circus and displayed in a cage. That's where he first appears, in the prologue, which sets up the rest of the opera to unfold as his tragicomic life story. The prologue takes place at the Palace of the Soviets, a grandiose structure capped with a huge statue of Lenin that was planned but never built.

The prologue, consisting of 11 numbers, calls for 11 solo voice parts and a chorus. None of the singing roles for the Phil's performances has been cast yet.

McBurney, a Russian music specialist who has arranged other Shostakovich scores including the 1931 vaudeville revue "Declared Dead," a.k.a. "Hypothetically Murdered," said he received a phone call from Irina Shostakovich asking him to do the "Orango" orchestration in late 2007 or early 2008. He agreed, and completed his work in 2009.

By that time, word of the discovery had surfaced in news reports. Salonen, an admirer and frequent conductor of Shostakovich, mentioned to Borda his interest in conducting the piece. They agreed to try to acquire the rights for the Phil. Salonen is a friend of McBurney and his younger brother, the actor-writer Simon McBurney, and once had met Irina Shostakovich (who could not be reached for comment).

McBurney helped put the Phil in touch with Digonskaya and Irina Shostakovich. "I did say to Madame Shostakovich I thought this was a very good opportunity, with the Phil and that wonderful hall and an electrifying conductor," McBurney said, adding that several other opera and theater companies had been interested in acquiring the rights to "Orango."

David Fanning, a musicologist and professor at the University of Manchester, England, said that "Orango" is one of many scores that Shostakovich composed "around this time" that "are fascinating and sound like him" but were composed in haste.

"Frankly, it's not A-1, top-drawer" material, Fanning said of "Orango." However, he added, if McBurney can make top-drawer Shostakovich out of it, "then my hat's off to him."

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